A Carol Of Wonder
By Rob Morris
There was once in Japan a man who insisted that an arrangement made long ago be honored.
He suddenly found that he could not recall whether or not he had gotten his way in this matter, and then realized he was in his car, being driven to see the results of that arrangement, and this meant surely he had prevailed. Except that he did not feel at all like a victor.
He noted immediately that the car was not in its usual pristine condition. When he leaned forward to look in the front seat, he now saw also that his driver was not who they should be.
Why would she be there? Wasn't she running one of his largest stores—and had she not been formally adopted into his family, an honor she had long since earned back?
"We will be there soon, sir."
'Sir'. No name, no honorific, merely 'Sir'. The girl had always been reserved. This was part of her great strength. It was largely why his daughter's training had been left in her hands, from a very tender age.
"We are here, sir."
Now, though, her face actually looked dour, and gravely displeased. She had failed to even acknowledge one of a driver's sworn duties.
"You would have me walk in unescorted?"
"You may ask anything of me, sir. But not that. Never that. For if I should face your heir, there would be blood. Add to that, I doubt very much his guards would allow me to get that close."
Her explanation reeked not so much of defiance as grim resignation, even despair. Despite his own insistence on protocol and obedience when sworn to, he chose not to challenge her. Even if this had been his every intent, it would have soon evaporated.
The sign above the company his family had fought so hard to create no longer carried his name, even in part. What had happened? Was the old man's death a dream and a buy-out had occurred, possibly a hostile one? Had the second man to be called Kaoru Hanabishi sued based on some obscure technicality, after the marriage contract had fallen through, and taken what Aoi's hand would no longer give him?
"Miyabi-San spoke of…my heir?"
His heir. He—a male. He now wondered, had Aoi herself been nothing but a lovely dream? He had never once regretted not having a son, even when the taunts of some friends with too little tact in their souls and too much strong sake in their stomachs cut him. Yet had not the mere sight of her smile, the feel of her beneath his arm, always erased that?
*Whatever I wished for in my private moments, her place in my life was never at issue.*
"Sakuraba-San. He will see you."
The hulking bodyguards had always put him off. Their demeanor always seemed to confirm the rumors that Old Hanabishi had fringe dealings with the Yakuza. Much like the American crooner Frank Sinatra, these were ties maintained mainly in order to make him seem roguish. There had even been rumors that the death of his grandson's mother had been no mere accident, but these were dismissed as something the old man had spread in order to make rivals fearful.
"Tell your employer I thank him."
He did not feel like a man who had everything taken from him. He also doubted that Hanabishi would see him so readily if this were the case. His eye was caught by a painted portrait on the wall.
"That young woman? Is that my daughter?"
The guard who wore sunglasses regardless of time, day, or place, now looked very badly displeased.
"That is Aoi Hanabishi-Dono, our Chairman's lovely wife. That is how she is to be referred to, even by yourself, Sakuraba-San. In this, there is no leeway. Employees, even long-time ones, have been dismissed on this basis alone."
A move that he was certain had to be illegal, not to mention petty and vicious. Perhaps Hanabishi-San could be dissuaded from it, and perhaps he would be reminded about honoring his lovely wife's family.
"Sakuraba-San! Please come in!"
The man was not old, and nor was he the second man of that family to bear the given name Kaoru. Despite sporting a moustache much like his late grandfather, his identity was obvious.
The smile vanished as the head of the Zaibatsu conglomerate closed his office door.
"That surname belonged to my late mother. I do not care to be reminded of her. Even to you, father of my wife, this must be known and understood—always."
As Sakuraba grew chill, the smile returned to his heir's face.
"As you surely recall, it was clinging to her memory that held me back for so long. It was at your urging that I finally let those memories go, and returned to my grandfather in time to absorb his lessons on business and strength. Indeed, I should thank you anew, Sakuraba-San. But do not raise the matter of my mother again. Her ghost walked between me and my destiny for far too long. It made me think my grandfather cruel, when he was only preparing me for life."
This was everything he had wished for, but somehow this man was not the husband he had wished for his daughter. His eyes were empty, his voice cold, even when speaking in supposed gratitude.
"I am greatly pleased that you were able to reconcile with your grandfather, based on my humble advice."
Kaoru Hanabishi waved his hand in the air dismissively.
"You are far too modest. Not only did I follow your advice on resuming my place in the family, but you were so on-target about the appearance projected by having all those young women around. The day I moved on that was a true mark of maturity for me."
Sakuraba decided he did not like the sound of that at all.
"So you have taken steps in that regard?"
"Quite so—forceful steps, as would make my grandfather proud. That one fawning idiot was pulled away by her father, who was reminded of just how much business he does with Hanabishi. One will never be permitted to enter Japan again, being on several watchlists. As to the others, including my former slacker associates at the university? I hold the mortgages to their properties. Along with their guarantee of silence and distance."
Sakuraba wished to question if this was the sort of thing one did to one's friends. The thought that this was not the sort of man such a question was asked of restrained this impulse.
"Forceful steps indeed."
Hanabishi seemed to anticipate his next question.
"Do you wish to see my wife, during your visit?"
Sakuraba found himself wanting to refuse anything this man had to offer, yet his heart ached to see his Aoi again. Could it have been years since he last saw her?
"I will arrange with you a visit to your home—at your convenience, of course."
"You are at my home, honored founder. Given the ruckus raised by that impostor and his shrewish mother, I grew concerned for my wife and our children, and for all our safety. They and I now dwell in the suite of apartments several floors above us."
A way to maintain safety, thought Sakuraba—or a way to maintain control? He feared it sounded like the latter, even though it was impossible to imagine his Aoi, even at her most defiant, being out of control. So why did he recall her virtual imprisonment, aided and abetted by a vicious lie? When would that have even occurred? Who would have done such a thing?
He was *permitted* to ascend via the elevators unescorted, and yet he noted that the entrance to the apartments floor still had armed guards waiting.
"Lady Hanabishi-Dono will see you now, Sakuraba-San."
He hesitated to turn the door handle before him. Yet finally, he did. The woman in front of him reminded him of his own wife. Not even his wife at that age—but his wife as she appeared now.
"Even though that is not how you should address me, Father, I am pleased to see you."
No, she wasn't. The woman before him didn't look like she was pleased by anything.
"You are well?"
Her look turned fearful.
"Father, please, do not cast such aspersions on my husband's treatment of me."
"I cast no aspersions. I merely asked how you were."
Her head tilted as though somehow hearing the words of her husband.
"But to ask such a thing is to imply that I am treated anything less than in a manner befitting the wife of the head of the Hanabishi Zaibatsu. I will implore you not to ask so leading a question ever again."
*There is steel beneath those long sleeves*. That is what was always said of a Yamato Nadeishko, the kind of wife that Sakuraba had, and the kind of wife their child had been raised to be. But the creature before him now had no steel. She was a bubble, a balloon animal filled with hot air by her man. It was very nearly revolting.
"May I see the children?"
"I do not think that wise, Father. It would only excite them, and it is best that they are not excited when their father returns from his long days. They might draw his ire, and what sort of wife would I be to permit such a thing?"
They both stood up, and Sakuraba noticed two things. Under one eye was a great deal of makeup, the same tone as Aoi's skin. The other eye did not seem to move correctly, and even seemed to reflect the light.
"He has dared hurt you?"
Now, her face took on a harsh and unforgiving aspect.
"Sakuraba-San, you must leave."
"The children? Is he hurting them as well?"
"Security! You will show our ungracious guest out—well out of sight of my husband. He is not to be disturbed by the filth this stranger peddles."
"Aoi, I am your Father!"
"Go away, old man. We don't need you. What good we have, you may not improve, and what is wrong…"
She turned away, and he saw her touch her eyes.
"…your wild rants will only make worse."
He was thrown out, crying her name. Miyabi stood outside to collect him. Her tone was that of a woman daring him to fire her.
"Be mindful of your wishes, Old Man. Show respect for creation's path as it played out, not how you planned and then re-planned it."
She drove him home—home to a small guest house next to a now-boarded up house that was once nearly a mansion. He ran to be near his beloved wife, fell and slipped in the mud, crying his eyes out.
The pain in his head and chest then exploded.
She had felt her man of many years awaken suddenly, cold and sweaty, and had taken a few moments before alerting their family doctor. Sakuraba was taken to the hospital after what was later called 'a serious cardiac episode' that may have involved a mild stroke as well.
A month after this, his beloved wife was finally able to speak to him about that very close call.
Sakuraba drank down some cold water.
"In my dream, Kaoru Honjō heeded our urgings to go back to his family. He now headed both companies, though combined under his family's name alone. He was a cold, ruthless monster. Our daughter was a pathetic, empty vessel, gratefully accepting his abuse. Even Miyabi-San was broken and bitter. Just as it is in our real life, my efforts cost me Aoi's love."
His speech was not so badly slurred as to blur his words. The steel beneath the sleeves of his wife now showed in full measure.
"You are an old fool."
His pride was wounded, but he was prepared to be tasked.
"I have just said that."
She shook her head.
"You are not an old fool not for your past actions. Those cannot be undone any more than could the love of a young couple. Your foolishness lies in thinking that our daughter, whatever name she bears, could ever stop loving you."
"Yet—I have left avenues open for calls, visits, cards-none have emerged. I know now that what is done is done. Yet even in a limited way, she refuses to see me. What is that the product of, if not lost love?"
The wise woman who had long had two daughters, and who waited patiently until the elder could be formally proclaimed that, showed her wisdom anew.
"You speak of love lost. I speak of something almost as important. You did not lose Aoi's love. That is not possible for one who loves as fiercely as she. You lost, by way of a poorly chosen lie about your health, not her love, but her trust. The ability to know that your word is not merely law, but also truth. Have you ever told her that you accept the fact and the reality of her marriage?"
He found that he could not answer, so once again she did.
"She came here to see you."
Her words caused hope to leap up in his damaged heart. His wife's eyes showed that this was not all good news.
"You say that she came here to see me, so am I forgiven?"
"I cannot say that, though I all but begged it of her. Again, you could no more negate her love than you ever could mine. But Husband-our Aoi would not come to see you until Miyabi assured her that you were in a hospital, and not at our home."
Now, the old man felt honestly and truly hurt.
"Our child felt unsafe in the house that was once her own home?"
"Do you not see it then? Because you took such extreme measures to change her mind in the past, she and Kaoru cannot know for certain that she will not be whisked off and annulled, or some odd untoward scheme like that. I doubt that she or he is quite that suspicious, yet again how can they know?"
She was speaking somewhat outside the bounds of her supposed station, but he was not so foolish an old man as to cut her off, especially at a time like this. The heart in his spirit felt even weaker than the one in his chest.
"What would you have me do? What is enough to make things as they were?"
"As they were, my darling? That will never be, and it can never be. Would you have our child again become the weak thing that could easily have become the empty vessel you saw in your dream? Her seeming defiance of you showed at last that our fragile flower was now in full healthy bloom. That must never be undone."
Burdened though he felt, he took note of her chosen words.
"You say her seeming defiance of me? Her defiance is as beyond dispute as that of her husband for his family."
Her smile told him she had been waiting for this moment.
"Did either child truly defy their family? Did Aoi disobey her father of five years ago, or did she faithfully obey the father who initially betrothed her, and bid her live her life for the boy Kaoru? Did Kaoru in turn spurn his grandfather, or did he refuse to spurn the memory of his mother? That is why the old man had him beaten, you know. He spread talk of gang involvement, or possibly drugs. But it was for the smallest piece of her that the old man felt threatened. Now you have seen a world where Kaoru relinquished that grip, and that grip was also to his basic humanity. It was his loyalty to the one who gave him the humanity that caused our daughter to doubly embrace her loyalty to your bidding that she fall in love with him."
His tired face grew a bit more so.
"He told this to Miyabi? About the beatings?"
"He was reluctant to. But when she made her final push to have him reconcile with the Hanabishis, he revealed this, and she in turn told me. Though I betray a confidence in telling you this, I wish even more so to disabuse you of any notion that these children are rebels and rogues, even for love. It was far more than their loyalty to their love that drove them into conflict with their clans."
Sakuraba looked earnestly at his wife, and spoke decidedly non-traditional words.
"What would you have me do? How can our daughter's trust be earned once again?"
Again, his wife showed that this was a matter she had considered, long before his nightmare had prompted this talk.
"Your invitations to her and her husband in the recent past have been for traditional functions, known if not always followed by every son and daughter of Japan. That has I think been a large part of the problem. At such times, family loyalty and tradition is invoked. Perhaps that is what our daughter—our children—fear. Even if invited only as guests outside the family, they worried that a trap awaited them. So it is that we must step outside of Japanese tradition."
He shook his head.
"What is left then?"
"In Japan, we celebrate Christmas, as a secular holiday. In Europe and America, though? Human gift-giving reflects Human Charity, which is a reflection of Divine Charity, which is summed by the central tenet Christians subscribe to : That God so loved the world, he gave it his only begotten son."
While not ever celebrating Christmas in the sense she now described, Sakuraba often found he liked hearing about its deeper roots, simply because it often seemed a season of shallowness and indulgence to him-even if it filled the coffers of his stores rather nicely.
"Christmas is a promise kept, foretold in the prophecies of Isaiah. Christmas is at its spiritual core, the celebration of The Child."
She put her hand in his, and squeezed.
"The child that you and I brought into this world—is soon to have a child of her own. She told me this through Miyabi. She learned it after she barked at an old friend who is a persistent visitor to their apartment. The child will have a loving father, devoted mother, and likely several doting aunts from around the world. In Miyabi it will have a godmother. Tell me, Husband. Will it also have grandparents? I believe it wants them. I think that your grim dream may have even been sent by that unborn child's spirit."
Sakuraba lit up. A determined look had grown on his face. When he had rested once more, he asked to place a phone call.
"Miyabi-Chan? I wish to make a special real estate purchase. Yes, at that very property. Still? Good. It is time to pick up our option, as in the contract. And find someone to begin to prepare travel arrangements for late December tomorrow morning."
Smiling, the now-slightly less old man nodded at his wife.
"When the development deal went through, we were given a standing offer for our troubles. It should be a pleasant surprise."
When she realized what he meant, she too smiled. For Old Sakuraba was as good as his word.
When that December 24th came, Miyabi drove the young Honjō couple to a very familiar housing development, with one house decorated in full Christmas regalia. Aoi could not help but place her face against the glass of the back seat's car window.
"I never thought to see this place again-even though it has changed so much."
Kaoru's face was filled with only a little less wonder than his bride's.
"There are dozens upon dozens of houses where once only two stood. I never realized how large those places were, until now."
Miyabi smiled at the near-nostalgia in Kaoru's voice. Her own efforts to be a better driver had also paid off. Her adoptive father, in a warm moment that was increasingly less rare, advised her that this was well within her capabilities.
*I had always thought that on his part, my adoption was a grudging one.*
"Onee-Chan, why are we here?"
The joy in Aoi's voice at being able to openly state the feelings she had always had towards Miyabi was felt all around.
"To accept a gift, freely given and with no strings attached, from our father, Mrs. Honjō. You may even choose to refuse it, but I think it will be to your liking."
As the young couple left the car, a flash from a digital camera took them by surprise.
"Like I was gonna miss the look on your faces when you saw this spread!"
If the blond hair and busty figure didn't do it, the Hakata-by-way-of-Austin accent told the whole story. Aoi raced forward to embrace her, only a little ahead of her husband.
"Tina-San? We weren't expecting you till well into the New Year!"
"Aw, once your Daddy told me he was setting this up, I had to fly in and keep things on the up and up. Ya know, given last time."
Either Aoi or Kaoru was about to speak to Tina about tact, when another voice was heard.
"As usual, she lacks all sensitivity and has no sense of protocol. But I will concede, that last instance also raised my suspicions."
As unmistakable as her friendly rival and antagonist, Mayu walked over to her friends, stopping before a sheepish Aoi.
"You know, you could have just told me I was coming over too often."
Aoi shook her head. Mayu was pushy, but Aoi did not like losing control.
"I snapped at Kaoru that same morning. It was then I went to see the Doctor. It is a bit in advance of our plans."
Tina waved her hand in the air.
"Pshaw! This whole holiday is based on a pregnancy no one outside of Heaven was expecting. Those little rugrats come on their schedule, not any of ours. And speaking of rugrats…"
Three screaming young women emerged from a car driven by a fourth one. This was after said car came screeching in to a chaotic, albeit a safe, stop.
"She's still a lunatic!"
"I'd rather have swum here—even with it being winter!"
"Kaoru Onii-Chan—I thought I might not see you again until Chika made it to the pearly gates!"
Taeko shrugged, and looked at the ferret Uzume, who had ridden on her shoulder.
"What's your opinion of my driving?"
The small creature darted away at a pace that belied its nearly ancient status, and then returned with one of the car's spark plugs. Taeko teared up.
Once a few members of Kaoru and Tina's photography club joined them, the Sakurabas emerged from inside, and bid everyone enter. Sakuraba-San bowed and presented Aoi and Kaoru with a document.
"This holiday is a storied one. But I shall not tell the story of another faith's beliefs regarding a prophesied child, nor about the belief that is held by small children around the world that a loving toymaker makes his delivery rounds at this time. For there is another story that predominates and that is the story of a foolish old man permitted to see grim shadows of things that might be or could have been. From these lessons, the man gains back his soul and his essential humanity. As it has been for me."
He looked Aoi directly in the eye.
"My daughter, my beloved Aoi-Chan, I ask now that you be my daughter once again. You need do nothing to bring this about, save accept my apology for using your concern for my health against you and treating your heart as a chess piece in games of alliance. Will you do this?"
If anything, Aoi seemed horrified by what her father said.
"Father, you must not do this!"
Kaoru joined in, shaking his head.
"Father Sakuraba, this is unseemly. I know that you acted only in what you believed to be best for your daughter, which is all I have ever wanted. No apology need be offered."
But the elder Sakuraba was firm in his offer.
'That may be true, Kaoru-San. But only up to a point. When I used a lie to ensnare my child into a union quite against her will—a will that my own earlier wishes had played a part in starting—I crossed a line that even the sacred flow of loyalty from child to parent should never allow for. My daughter—and it seems now my son as well—are too kind to ever simply tell me that this should not be, that I should have never considered it."
"But whatever may or may not linger from that moment of shattered trust, I now have the means to erase it forever. The document I have given you places this wonderful house, built so near the place of your young joy, in the joint possession of four people—those being myself, my beloved wife, our child Aoi, and her husband, Kaoru. I propose that we maintain this house as neutral ground for family events and holidays, so that no one's will or willfulness may mar these bonds, ever again."
While the assembled guests varied in their knowledge of tradition, all easily recognized that this was an extraordinary gesture on the part of the old man. After a moment of looking into each other's eyes, the expectant couple made their will plain through a question Aoi asked.
"Father, will you dance with me?"
Dance they did, and after a bow, son-in-law asked the same of his wife's mother. Not a single eye resisted tearing, and Chizuru had to help Keisuke to get the openly sobbing Natsuki to a chair, a reversal the meeker girl would bring up for the rest of their lives. Mayu and Tina later led the others in singing 'Celebrate Me Home' by Kenny Loggins, at least one chorus in the original English. Despite a light dust-up concerning Kaoru's career path, the stars were brightly shining as an extended family celebrated the coming of a child.
As per his plans and hopes, come the New Year, Sakuraba-San played lovingly with his grandchild.
As per the plans of Aoi and Kaoru, he in fact had the opportunity and joy to play with several of them.
Many thanks to this story's first reviewer, a2plusb2equalc2, whose suggestions and nits I used in revising this story. - Gojirob